The interior of the Music Center at Strathmore, where the National Philharmonic will play half of its 2020-21 season. Credit: Annemarie Mountz / CC BY-NC 2.0 / Penn State

This fall, despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Montgomery County residents will still be treated to a season’s worth of classical music from the National Philharmonic, the orchestra based out of the Music Center at Strathmore. Viewers will be watching it from home, as they might be used to doing by now. But the musicians will gather in person to record the music.

Last summer, the orchestra nearly folded under budget concerns before a last-minute infusion of cash and a leadership change saved its 2019-2020 season. It played on, successfully finishing most of the season and selling out multiple concerts. Then COVID-19 arrived and shut down America—and the Philharmonic—in March, and the future was uncertain again.

The Philharmonic’s CEO and president, Jim Kelly, who took over in August 2019, quickly realized in the spring that it was too risky to bet on the organization being able to host a live audience in the fall. Still, having a season felt crucial. “What work I can provide to musicians in our local area, I’m going to try my hardest to do and pull off. It doesn’t come without risk, but I feel very passionate about that. Also, from a nonprofit standpoint, if you don’t continue to engage with your supporters, then they might find other opportunities to engage with other organizations,” he says. “And keeping music going for our community and our patrons, it’s essential. It’s essential to life.”

So the orchestra, like many arts organizations, pivoted. They would have a season, but audiences would watch the recorded performances online. The National Philharmonic wouldn’t stitch together tracks recorded at home, like they did in May for an online performance of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man.” Any programming they put out needed to be of a very high quality. “If we were going to do this, we needed to compete online with organizations that are much larger than us. Because it’s not an in-person concert, the competition is worldwide,” Kelly says. Instead, a small group of musicians would play in the same room, with about half the season recorded in Strathmore’s Music Center and the other half in its smaller venue, the AMP. The concerts will be broadcast in the form of a 60-minute TV presentation, with about 45 minutes of music and 15 minutes of educational and explanatory content. Its first show, celebrating Beethoven‘s 250th birthday, premieres at 2 p.m. on Oct. 25.

“We’re trying our hardest to do this in the safest possible way with the resources we have,” Kelly says. “Based on the science we have today, we are not able to remove all of the risk. There will always be some risk.” But the Philharmonic is attempting, through multiple measures, to reduce that risk. First, for half of the season in the Music Center, the orchestra was cut down to a maximum of 35 musicians, often fewer, to comply with Montgomery County’s Phase 2 reopening rules. The county caps gatherings at 50 people, and 35 musicians leaves just enough room for a handful of required other personnel to be in the space, like the conductor, camera technicians, and producers. The other half of the season will require even fewer people, with music that mostly relies on a handful of strings in the AMP. 

Before musicians can enter a venue, they have to answer a questionnaire and have their temperature taken. When inside, everyone must wear a mask at all times, apart from members of the orchestra playing wind instruments. Musicians are only allowed in their own designated, taped-off areas of the audience, are assigned specific bathrooms, cannot go backstage, and will be seven or more feet apart when onstage. One staff member’s job is to watch and make sure no one gets too close to anyone else. The “minimal winds and brass,” who will only play in the Music Center, will be seated under the intake for the concert hall’s filtration system, which can turn over the air in the hall four times an hour, Kelly says. Additionally, two portable HEPA filters will be placed between the winds and the strings. Leon Scioscia, Strathmore’s executive vice president of operations, writes in an email that both the county-owned Music Center and the Federal Realty-owned building where AMP is housed have filtration systems that meet the MERV 11 standard and will be upgraded to MERV 13. MERV is a measure of a filter’s ability to capture particles, and ASHRAE, a professional association, recommends MERV 13 to mitigate infectious aerosol transmission. The AMP also has large windows that can be opened to increase airflow, Scioscia says.

The Philharmonic isn’t requiring its musicians to quarantine before concerts or to be tested for COVID-19, but they’re “encouraged” to, Kelly says. “Personally, I will do everything I can to limit my own travel, and I am getting tested beforehand as my own precautionary measure,” he says—he’s a violist who will be playing in some of the concerts. Musicians who don’t feel comfortable playing won’t be penalized. While their contracts typically stipulate they need to play a certain number of concerts with the orchestra to remain in the group, that requirement has been waived, according to multiple musicians.

The National Philharmonic resides at Strathmore, but that organization is facing a labor grievance. The International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees filed a complaint with the National Labor Relations Board at the beginning of this month after Strathmore laid off 19 ticket sellers in the summer. IATSE alleges that the layoffs violated a tentative staffing agreement, DCist reports, and last week, union members protested near the Music Center.

“It saddens me that they’re on opposite sides of the communication wheel, and I know that Strathmore will do everything they can within their power to help the situation, but there is no work,” Kelly says. “There are no concerts to present and no tickets to be sold because of county and state restrictions.” (Strathmore is currently selling tickets to its limited outdoor exhibition Monuments: Creative Forces, which closes Oct. 25.)

“We continue to meet to negotiate, and we remain committed to working with our team members from I.A.T.S.E Local 868 to come to an agreement soon,” Scioscia says. “While we are still prohibited from opening our venues for live performances, we nonetheless remain flexible and have scaled staff (including Ticket Office colleagues) up or down temporarily as opportunities to host limited-capacity activities arise.”

Three musicians City Paper talked with all said that the protocol made them feel safe and that they were excited to play again. 

“I was ready to go right away. I didn’t have to be convinced, because they had presented so much information. They said ‘This is what the hall can do, this is our plan,’” says Julius Wirth, the National Philharmonic’s 57-year-old principal violist, who will be playing in both the Music Center and the AMP. “If they didn’t have all this scientific stuff to put in front of me, I would have been a little skeptical, but there was so much.”

“The first feeling was, you know, I have something to look forward to. I was just kind of elated that there’s finally something to do,” says Erich Heckscher, 48, the orchestra’s principal bassoon. “And yes, there’s the reality of safety. My wife and I … we’re extremely careful in our lives, we’re aware of all that stuff. But we know what reasonable considerations are. You’re never at zero risk, but I don’t know, I always say that if you get in your car and drive to the store you’re never at zero risk. So the concern’s there in the back of my mind, but I don’t prioritize that. I think I can do it in such a way that I can keep myself and other people safe.”

“If the question is do I want to play, the answer is obviously yes. And they already had so many of the questions about safety answered,” says 37-year-old violinist Laura Colgate, the orchestra’s concertmaster. She acknowledges her answer might be different if there was a live audience or if she were older, and says she feels bad for older musicians who were essentially “forced into retirement” by the pandemic. 

But even though the musicians will be in the same room, the safety measures mean playing will be markedly different from what they’re used to. When the musicians are much farther apart from one another than they’re used to, reading each other’s cues is more difficult. One of Colgate’s jobs as concertmaster is to be a point of contact between the conductor and the rest of the orchestra. When they play, she communicates mostly through body language, and since her colleagues are far away, she’ll have to adjust to the distance, she says.

“You’re reacting to people, and sound travels not very fast in the scheme of the universe—light travels very quickly, but sound travels much more slowly, so if you’re 10 feet away from somebody, there’s a delay in your hearing each other,” Heckscher says. “You have to not let your ears guide you quite as much. If you’re waiting to hear someone else’s sound before you play, you’re probably gonna be late.” 

“You usually have six to eight violas in a section, sometimes more, and we’re playing together, we’re breathing together, we’re entering our entrances musically together, and we’re latching on to body language and so forth,” Kelly says. “And it’s very difficult when we’re now all 6 feet apart.” For violinists and violists, masks even change the way the instrument feels under a musician’s chin, Colgate says. In a visually-driven environment, if someone wears glasses, they have to ensure their mask doesn’t fog them up, and they can no longer see most of the conductor’s facial expressions.

“We’re trying to overcome all those things in the first rehearsal so we can play our best,” Kelly says.

The music this season includes a number of works composed by women, people of color, and local artists, Kelly says. Colgate, who co-founded the D.C.-based Boulanger Initiative, a group that promotes women composers, curated the chamber concerts at AMP with an eye to music that reflects the current moment. The first concert in that series, scheduled for Nov. 8, is titled “Music that Suspends Time” and features composers like Judith Lang Zaimont in addition to Johann Sebastian Bach.

“The goal has never been to replicate the concert experience via the internet,” Heckscher says. “I think what we’re after is making sure that we stay connected with our audiences. There’s so much online and so many distractions that coming in and sitting down and listening to an orchestra concert is more of a commitment now than it has ever been before. We just want to keep people in the motion of watching orchestras.”

Apart from audience retention, Colgate stresses the importance of music in bleak times as a major reason for the National Philharmonic to play. “Right now, people are clinging to art to bring them through this,” she says. Having a season, even a virtual one, is important “not just so that musicians can survive—I mean, we’re people who have dedicated our lives to our craft, and having to put down our instruments and get a 9 to 5, the thought of that is so depressing—but because people need art,” especially in “times of protest, times of revolution.”

Wirth agrees. “It’s important to let our audience know we want to play for them, and this is the closest we can get,” he says. “It’s an offering in support of their support that they’ve always had for us. In this really ugly time in our history, worldwide and country-wide, it’s important to keep art in people’s souls.”